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Voyageur's Best Features of 2001

Maple syrup tap

A sweet time of year
Locals enjoy the spring maple sap harvest and syrup-making
by Kris Carlson  |  April 17, 2001

Native American legend tells that when the first people were on this land, the maple trees flowed with pure syrup straight from the spigot. The people ate abundantly the syrup from those trees, and they grew in size accordingly. And they were becoming lazy.

The Great Spirit noticed that not only were the people growing fat, but they were not fully realizing the value of the trees that gave them food. They had started to treat the land around them with disrespect, and the Great Spirit decided that something had to change. He added water.

Syrup making today is not a quick, easy task. But people in our area are carrying on the sugaring traditions of their families and ancestors for a reason. Okay, maybe two reasons. One, of course, is the wonderful taste of the syrup. The other is more complex: the work required and the time needed to boil down the sap creates an event, a spring happening in the woods. It is an organized social activity celebrating spring, nature, food and working together.

Bob Hanson from Wright can tell you about that first reason mentioned above. "Bob says he eats like a king everytime he has a plate of homemade pancakes," says his wife Jennie. They top their pancakes with maple and a variety of other wild syrups from around the Hanson farm: high bush cranberry, chokecherry or crab apple. The Hansons' sugaring site in the woods makes a good picnic place for just such a meal.

McGregor students involved in the Ojibwe culture program at school are learning the techniques as well as the traditional and cultural significance of maple sugaring by doing the work themselves. Maple syrup and sugar was so important to the Ojibwe people in Minnesota, that the month in which it was prepared (late March-April) was given the name Izhkigamisegi Geezis, or the month of boiling. Maple sugar was the main seasoning used in much of their food. Everyone was involved in making the syrup. It was an event, a happening.

The syrup that the students make during their demonstration project will be eaten at a big pancake breakfast at East Lake Community Center. The students hope that they will be able to make enough for family and friends to enjoy. They could be found this past cold rainy week trudging through the wet forest collecting sap from the bright blue plastic sap bags attached to the spigots on the tree. Each student was assigned two trees to take care of, and they drilled the holes themselves, setting up the spigot and bag collection system.

Syruping mentor Mushkooub explained that the students learned all of the smaller processes that make syruping successful, such as how to build a good hot fire, and how to cure a cast iron pot. And they were taught how to preserve sap until boiling time in giant piles of snow covered with tarps. They are learning how to work together to reach a goal.

A modern organization called the Slow Food Movement ( advocates taking the time and feeling the pleasure of creating our own food. It's something that many people today do not have the time for. All food preparation can be a celebration, an organized social activity. Producing syrup, then, would be an ultimate slow food. It takes physical labor, time and patience, and you might as well enjoy some good company in the mean time.

Syrup Making 101

Bill and Irene Olson, long time syrup hobbyists from Tamarack, say that "people often ask us 'How much sugar do you need to add during processing?'" And so a brief explaination of how syrup is made is in order. The basic syruping process has not changed for nearly 400 years. The tools used have changed, however. No sugar necessary.

The first step is identifying the available trees. Frequently used trees are sugar maple, black maple, and box elder. They have opposite branching, "helicopter" flyer seeds, and gray to blackish colored bark. Maple trees have simple lobed leaves and box elder trees have compound leaves. It is possible to tap birch trees as well, and as Bill found out, "the amount of sap that flows from them is amazing, we just had to try it." It takes twice as much sap, and twice as long to boil birch sap, and the resulting flavor is not as sweet, more like molasses.

Next you need syruping equipment: a drill with a 7/16 bit, a spout for each tap hole (metal or, as both the Olsons and the Hansons used in their early years of sugaring, a hollowed out sumac branch.), a collection container (buckets, cans, plastic bags, iron kettles), large storage containers for sap storage, and a large pan or kettle for boiling down the sap.

Holes are drilled 2-3 inches deep with a slight upwards angle. Some guidlines say that a tree 10 inches in diameter can take one tap, and one additional tap may be installed for each additional 5 inches. Each tap may produce 10-25 gallons of sap. Bill Olson figures he gets about a quart of syrup per tree. Sap flows best when there are freezing nights and warm sunny days. It may not flow every day.

Bill has experimented with collection hoses, such as those that large producers use to link up their hundreds or thousands of trees. It has proved to be a handy technique. This year he has four trees linked by hose into one large collection tank, removing some physical labor.

The sap either needs to be stored in cool storage, as the students did with their snow piles, or boiled as soon as possible. Without the cooling or immediate boiling, one warm afternoon can result in fungus or bacteria growth in the hard earned sap.

The next step is to boil down the sap into syrup. It takes 30 - 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. In the days before iron kettles, Native American people used birch bark baskets for collection and boil down. They placed hot rocks from the fire into the baskets of sap to cause the needed evaporation.

The larger the surface area of the pan used to boil, the faster the process. Almost constant stirring is needed, removing scum off of the top as it forms. Knowing when the syrup is done is learned through practice, or can be exactly measured by a hydrometer, as the Olsons use. Otherwise, it can be judged by looks, or by the boil (the instant that it all foams up was one indicator the Olsons remember using), or by cooling on a spoon or in the snow to test it.

The three sugar bushes visited for this article all used wood heat to boil off their syrup. Olsons use a gas burner for the finishing off stage at the end, so that they are able to immediately remove it from the heat when the hydrometer indicates that it is ready.

The final step is to filter the syrup through either commercial or homemade filters. The syrup is now ready to enjoy, or can for later use. The taste of that syrup on pancakes might just take you back to the fulfilling days spent at the sugar bush during the month of boiling.